Huguette Clark’s Continuing Will Contest Saga (Part II): Testamentary Capacity

Last week I blogged about the embattled estate of Huguette Clark the heiress who died in New York City in 2011 after spending the last 20 years of her life in a room at Beth Israel Medical Center. Click here to check it out if you missed it.

As mentioned in the prior blog, the interested parties to the estate may be reaching a settlement.  The battle among the heirs developed upon Ms. Clark’s passing, when it was ascertained that she signed two different wills in 2005 with drastically different provisions for the distribution of her estate.

In the first will, the vast majority of her estate was left to her family; while the second will disinherited them and left most of her estate to a new arts foundation with additional bequests to her doctor, nurse, lawyer and accountant.  Although Ms. Clark’s family sued to have the second will set aside on the basis of undue influence, it seems just as plausible that they could have sued on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity.

In North Carolina, a will contest (otherwise known as a “caveat proceeding”) may be filed by any person named in a decedent’s will or who is found to have an interest in the estate.  Generally speaking, this could include beneficiaries under an alleged prior will, intestate heirs and any other person who has a direct interest in the disposition of a decedent’s estate which would be impacted by probate or the setting aside of a will.  Once it is determined that such a person exists, they still need to provide proper grounds for contesting a will.  The basic grounds in North Carolina that support a will contest include:

1)     Execution was not performed with the requisite formalities;

2)     Testator was under age when the will was executed;

3)     Lack of testamentary capacity; and

4)     Undue influence, fraud, or mistake.

With regard to testamentary capacity, North Carolina presumes a Testator possessed the requisite capacity at the time of the signing of a will.  When capacity is in question, though, in order for a Testator to have sufficient mental capacity to make a will, the Testator must know and understand:

1)     The nature and extent of his property;

2)     The persons who are the natural objects of his bounty; and

3)     The nature and effect of the disposition he is making by executing a will.

The fact that a Testator is of advanced age and/or physically frail does not affect capacity, so long as evidence of the above is met.  In fact, even though a person may have been adjudicated incompetent, that same person may still have the requisite capacity to sign a will.  The real question at hand is whether, at the time the will was signed, the Testator had sufficient mental capacity as required by law to execute a will.

To learn more about the potential settlement of the Huguette Clark estate, click here.

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